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USM education center work is ahead of schedule, official says

March 31, 2004|by BOB MAGINNIS

Five years ago, officials of the University System of Maryland didn't believe it was possible to turn a couple of old buildings in downtown Hagerstown into a college campus.

That was then. Joseph T. Erchenian, project manager for the University of Maryland's Facilities Management Department, told me last week that the $13.3 million project is "a week, two-and-a-half weeks ahead of schedule."

That doesn't mean it's been a cakewalk. USM officials and Whiting-Turner Construction had to deal with four separate buildings in the Baldwin House complex - a five-story brick hotel built in 1881, the former Routzahn's department store, an attached warehouse and the former Grand Piano furniture warehouse.

Despite all that, Erchenian said, "the Hagerstown project is moving along pretty well."

The exterior brick work is 99 percent complete, he said, and the scaffolding that faces West Washington Street should be coming down very soon.

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In the old hotel portion of the complex, Erchenian said that the interior work and the scagliola, which is plasterwork made to look like marble, sometimes colored with granite or marble dust, are nearly complete.

"In the Routzahn building, the drywall is up and we're very much ahead of schedule," he said.

"In the Baldwin House, the windows are up, the boiler and heating system are installed and they're testing them now. And the roof should be done on the Baldwin House within the next few weeks," he said.

Old buildings sometimes surprise those who renovate them. You open a wall and the support you thought was there is missing, either because it wasn't built correctly in the first place, or because someone who came along later cut through a supporting beam to put in another stairway or something similar.

Asked if there'd been any surprises like that, Erchenian said there'd been more than one.

The biggest, he said, was discovering that one of the warehouses that was due for demolition provided significant structural support to the building in front of it.

"Apparently, they stacked a pile of rocks for the foundation" without anchoring them into the bedrock below, he said.

That forced the project team to build a well-anchored new addition, which contains the elevators for the complex, among other things.

Asked if there will be tours, Erchenian said, "not until the building is completed, around Nov. 11 or 12."

Before the public is allowed inside, the fire marshal will have to sign off on it, Erchenian said.

After that, he said, tours will be held, probably in conjunction with an open house of some kind.

"People are going to be pleasantly surprised at how beautiful the building is."

As for the landscaping of the small park planned alongside the campus building, Erchenian said that's under the direction of the Hagerstown city government. At this point, demolition and removal of the debris from the old McCrory's building is proceeding.

Five years from now, we may take it for granted that our children and grandchildren can complete a four-year college degree without the expense of leaving home.

We shouldn't, because some originally thought the facility would be geared only to adults already in the workplace who needed another degree to advance in their companies.

But USM officials told me that they're encouraging undergraduate education here, to save parents and students money and to ease the pressure on the larger campuses like College Park.

In the short term, the benefit of having undergraduate programs downtown is that there will be young people downtown, folks who will be looking for things to do between classes.

Coffee shops and places that sell books and magazines seem like naturals, but places that sell clothing, especially USM-themed merchandise, should also thrive.

But the Hagerstown Education Center's most important mission here will be increasing the number of college-educated people in Washington County, which should increase the median income here by drawing employers who need educated workers.

It all begins next January when the center opens, but we'll continue to update you on a variety of related topics - classes that will be offered, for example - between now and them.

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